Controversy in France Over Separation of Church and State: Part 2

I want to continue our discussion from last time by moving the scope of my comments from the specific to a more general discussion of the separation of church ahd state. We will move from a sociologically oriented fram or reference to a cultural frame of reference.

Culture is more concerned with symbols and symbolic systems that it is with social relationships and social institutions. This is something that most people fail to take into consideration when they discuss the relationship between religion and politics.

Religion (I use Geertz’s definition) and politics (I adapt Geertz’x defintion of religion to politics) are, if we want to be precise, cultural systems. That means they are symbolic systems that infuse social instutions and social relationships with meaning. A religion or a political system is a social system that sets the social rules and establishes the social instutions for that social system. Christianity is both a cultural system – a system of symbols – as well as a social system – a set of rules for social action (behavior) and social instutions – churches. A Church, then, is a specific social instance of the symbol system we call Christianity. Social instutions, especiall long-established ones like most Christian churches (denominations) tend to be bureaucratic rather than charismatic. A note to registered users: For a discussion of charisma and bureaucracy, take a look at my Heresiology book.

When a symbolic system, a religion, becomes manifes in a social instutiton like a church, there is always the possibility of more than one manifestation, more than one church, because symbols can have more than one meaning, as is the case with Christianity. That is why we have multiple denominations. And this is something that religious fundamentalists misunderstand.

A symbol, and the Bible is a symbol – actually a collection of symbols, and as a symbol it cannot be understood (interpreted) literally because symbols do not have literal meanings. They have multi-layered accretions of meaning that are open to interpretation based on a wide variety of variables taken from the social and cultural context of the times. Hostory also adds a whole series of meanings to a symbol and these historical meanings cannot be ignored or removed, no matter what the fundamentalists argue.

So, when we talk about the separation of religion and politics, we are actually talking anout the separation of two cultural symbol systems. If those two systems coexist im a specific cultural historical context, as they do in ths United States, it is impossible to separate one from the other. There is a great deal of overlap between the religious synbol system and the political symbol system here in the US, partly because of the close historical ties between the two. After all, religious freedom was one of the reasons for the founding of the original colonies and the freedom to worship as one chooses has been a guiding principle of the Americal political mythos since its beginnings.

However, the symbiotic relationship between the cultural systems of religion and politics does not mean that there has to necessarily be a close tie between the social manifestations of religion and the social manifestations of the poliitical cultural system. In fact, the American politcal mythos demans that the two social instutitions be separate. The state cannot dictate what social forms religion should take and the church cannot dictate state policy or instutions. That is the real meaning of separation of church and state.

It does not mean that political figures cannot have religious views or that political issues cannot be infused with religious symbolism. A political system that is truly moral, in the highest sense of the word, cannot avoid an infusion of religious symbolism, not if that political entity has a long history of close cultural ties to a religious cultural system, as does the United States, and as does France.

I think, before anyone criticizes the comments of the President of France, or any other political leader about the relationship between politics and religion, about the separation of church and state, thos critics had better make damn sure they have these concepts straight in their own minds. Too often, political and religious demagogues, either intentionally or out of ignorance, conflate the social and culural systems or use them interchangeably. That is misleading and dangerous.


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